Last week, President Trump signed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (SUPPORT Act), a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to tackle the opioid crisis by, among other approaches, increasing the use of telemedicine services to treat addiction. Several key provisions are summarized below.

The package includes provisions to expand public reimbursement for telemedicine services that focus on addiction treatment. Specifically, the legislation removes Medicare’s originating site requirement for substance abuse treatment provided via telemedicine, meaning that health professionals can receive Medicare reimbursement even if the patient is not located in a rural area. In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has been directed to issue guidance to states regarding possible ways that Medicaid programs can receive federal reimbursement for treating substance abuse via telemedicine. The legislation explicitly identifies services provided via a hub and spoke model and in school-based health centers, among others, as those that should be eligible for federal reimbursement.

In another development, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is now required to implement regulations regarding a special registration process for telemedicine providers within one year of the passage of the SUPPORT Act. The aim of this process is to expand health providers’ ability to prescribe controlled substances to patients in need of substance use disorder treatment based on a telemedicine consultation, without having to conduct an in-person evaluation first. This special registration process was originally contemplated 10 years ago under the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 (Ryan Haight Act) as one of the seven pathways through which a telemedicine provider could prescribe a controlled substance to his/her patient without having first conducted an in-person evaluation, but the DEA never issued any regulations to effectuate it. At present, the special registration process and requirements (e.g., registration costs, application processing timeline, provider qualifications) are still largely unknown. The answers to these open issues will determine how accessible this new registration pathway will be to substance use disorder providers and, therefore, how impactful it will be in connecting patients in need of substance use disorder treatment with qualified providers.

In addition to these policy reforms, the SUPPORT Act also directs government agencies to conduct additional research into the possible benefits of telemedicine technology for treating substance abuse. Both CMS and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are tasked with publishing reports concerning the use of telemedicine technology for treating children: CMS is directed to analyze how to reduce barriers to adopting such technology, and GAO is directed to evaluate how states can increase the number of Medicaid providers that treat substance use disorders via telemedicine in school-based clinics. Furthermore, the Department of Health and Human Services must issue a report regarding the impact of using telemedicine services to treat opioid addiction within five years.

As previously noted in our Digital Health Mid-Year Review, 2018 has seen greater acceptance of telemedicine within the Medicare program. Both regulatory and statutory changes have expanded reimbursement opportunities and, consequentially, opportunities for the deployment of telemedicine technologies. As we noted then, however, improvement in the Medicare reimbursement environment for telemedicine services has been tied to a policy goal of not increasing utilization unnecessarily. We noted in our Mid-Year Review that Congress appears to be following MedPac’s recent guidance that Congress “should take a measured approach to further incorporating telehealth into Medicare by evaluating individual telehealth services to assess their capacity to address. . . cost reduction, access expansion, and quality improvement.”

The recently introduced Reducing Unnecessary Senior Hospitalizations Act of 2018 (the RUSH Act), seems to deviate from MedPac’s suggested approach. The RUSH Act seeks to avoid hospitalizations through a program that creates financial incentives for providing certain nonsurgical services furnished by hospital emergency departments at skilled nursing facilities that are qualified to provide such services by the Secretary of Health and Human Services The RUSH Act specifically refers to the possibility that some of these services could be provided by licensed practitioners “through the use of telehealth.” Interestingly, the RUSH Act does not specify what telehealth services should be allowable or how they should be reimbursed; rather, the RUSH Act leaves these matters for agency determination.

According to Representative Diane Black (TN), one of the bill’s sponsors, “[t]here are companies who are ready and able to provide this innovative care. . . . These positive disruptors just need Medicare’s payment policies to catch up with the technology. . . giving [nursing homes] the technology-enabled tools needed to lower health care costs and, most importantly, save lives.”

As an observer of this industry, I tend to agree with this claim, but under the approach taken by this bill, that determination will need to be made by the Department of Health and Human Services. Digital health companies looking for a better reimbursement environment are well-advised to focus on the bottom line of federal health policy–lower cost, improved care and increased access.

Across the health care sector, telemedicine is naturally and strategically being integrated into health care delivery and treatment plans as targeted and efficient solutions to specific health issues by hospitals, medical groups and drug-to-consumer telemedicine companies.

Telemedicine is no longer viewed as a secondary option for care—it is a new standard of care that is both expected by patients and popular with providers. Consumers expect to see health care adapt—like many other industries already have—to fit within their daily lives and schedules. Whether it’s electronic check-in procedures or better automated systems, health care providers are beginning to treat their patients a little bit more like customers, and see telemedicine and patient engagement tools as a means of improving customer loyalty and engagement while reducing costs.

However, complex billing structure and payor and reimbursement issues can create significant hurdles for health care providers looking to advance telemedicine programs. Telemedicine billing requires special attention, and if not enough consideration is given on the front end of programs, organizations may be surprised to find that that something they thought was a billable service is, in fact, not.

The Bipartisan Budget Act, which provided for the reimbursement of the distance provider, significantly increased the telemedicine use cases that are approved under the Medicare reimbursement structure. However, because Congress will now pay for it, there is a new expectation that hospitals that do not have particular areas of expertise available on-site will investigate opportunities to incorporate a telehealth programs that ensure adequate patient care.

The standard of care continues to improve as patients have greater access to  nationwide physicians and  as new technology like telestroke and clinical decision support tools become more widely available. For example, a stroke neurologist in one New York can now diagnose a stroke patient in Florida, and then facilitate an emergency room physician to treat that stroke. Telestroke programs check off all of the right boxes: better quality care, better access to care, and overall lower cost of care.

As use cases like this continue to be integrated into health care delivery and familiarity builds around how telemedicine can be used effectively, expectations shift around the standard of care and new questions arise around the risks of integrating—or failing to integrate—telehealth programs. If the tools are available and easily accessible, and if there is a supportive reimbursement model, how much a part of the standard of care does telemedicine become and what is the risk of failing to embrace these tools? If hospitals choose not to implement telehealth programs, and then patients suffer harm as a result, for example a delayed diagnosis and treatment of a stroke, could that lead to increased medical malpractice suits or other types of liability?

In the newest episode of the Of Digital Interest podcast, McDermott Digital Health partners, Lisa Schmitz Mazur and Dale Van Demark, share their perspectives on these questions and the various barriers, risks and opportunities associated with the rise of telemedicine and other technological advancements in health care delivery. Access this episode at www.mwe.com/mcdermottdigitalhealth or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Pocket Casts or Soundcloud.

Designed to provide business leaders and their key advisors with the knowledge and insight they need to grow and sustain successful digital health initiatives, we are pleased to present The Law of Digital Health, a new book edited and authored by McDermott’s team of distinguished digital health lawyers, and published by AHLA.

Visit www.mwe.com/lawofdigitalhealth to order this comprehensive legal and regulatory analysis, coupled with practical planning and implementation strategies. You can also download the Executive Summary and hear more about how Digital Health is quickly and dynamically changing the health care landscape.

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A lot of us have argued that one of the floodgates for telemedicine has been reimbursement. If states and the Federal government more liberally reimbursed or required reimbursement for telemedicine service, we argue then a significant barrier to broader telemedicine will be removed. This is a valid argument, and the potential flurry of activity on Capitol Hill as of this writing (September 20, 2017) gives many hope that Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine may be greatly expanded soon.

Alas, another problem persists. A spate of recent surveys and reports on utilization demonstrate that awareness should be viewed as a similar sort of barrier. It is, of course, a generalization to say this, but consumers are largely unaware of the benefit being made available to them, or are unaware of the appropriate uses of a telemedicine service. It would be foolish to speculate as to the reasons why, but a recent trend may help to erode this barrier.

When it comes to customer service and user engagement, none are better than our technology industry. The West Coast tech giants clearly understand how to engage and attract users. The remarkable success of smart phones provides ample evidence—can you think of any other consumer product of comparably high-cost being as ubiquitous? It is also clear that the health care industry has failed to engage consumers as effectively. There are likely multiple reasons for this. Health care is: (1) highly regulated, resulting in limited ability to be quickly responsive to consumer demands; (2) run by professionals trained in many things, but not sales or consumer satisfaction and engagement; and (3) burdened both by a lack of competition at the point of sale, and by a third-party payment system that has so far proven to be impervious to the forces of disintermediation. Continue Reading The Way Forward for Telemedicine

The Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (Compact) has now been adopted by 26 states, which means the Compact will be taking effect on January 19, 2018. Nurses who seek to practice telemedicine and deliver in-person care across state lines and who meet the Compact’s licensure requirements in these states will have one less obstacle to overcome going forward.

The Compact is an updated version of the original compact allows for registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical/vocational nurses (LPN/VNs) to have one multistate license, which will enable them to practice nursing in person or via technology (e.g., videconference) in both their home state, as well as the other Compact states. Development and implementation of the Compact was not an easy feat, given the need for alignment of licensing standards across the Compact states, including federal and state fingerprint-based criminal background checks.

The 26 states participating in the Compact as of today are Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

For more information about the Compact, please visit: https://www.ncsbn.org/11070.htm.

As one of the last states to retain highly restrictive (and arguably anti-competitive) telemedicine practice standards, health care providers, regulatory boards, technology companies, payors and other stakeholders have been actively monitoring Texas’ approach to telemedicine regulation and the related Teladoc case. Texas has eliminated its most restrictive requirement for delivering care via telemedicine in Texas, increasing opportunities for providers to reach patients using technology.  Senate Bill 1107 was passed on May 11, 2017, and the House added an amendment in passing Senate Bill 1107, which was approved in the Senate on May 18.  The bill was signed into law by Governor Abbott last weekend.

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Utah is one of the many states that started off 2017 with proposals to change its existing telehealth laws and regulations. Proposed Utah HB 154 (the Proposed Bill), endorsed by Ken Ivory and Allen Christensen, amends the regulatory infrastructure for telehealth, with a focus on mental health. Two of the key components of the Proposed Bill are listed below:

  • The Proposed Bill creates a scope of telehealth practices within the Utah Health Code. Under the scope of practice requirements, any provider using telehealth to provide care will be held to the same standard of care as that applicable to in-person care. In addition, the Proposed Bill stipulates that a provider may not prescribe using telehealth unless the provider has obtained the patient’s relevant clinical history and documented the relevant clinical history and current symptoms. The provider must also be available for follow-up care and familiar with available medical resources near where the patient was located during the telehealth consult.
  • The Proposed Bill enacts a new provision to the Utah Medical Assistance Act specifically enabling the provision of mental health services—treatment of mental conditions that are approved in the DSM-V—via telehealth technologies. This provision of the Proposed Bill is Utah’s attempt to increase access to behavioral and mental healthcare services in Utah. In particular, the DSM-V addresses substance abuse disorders as mental health disorders, and the telehealth provision will enable providers to help treat addiction using telehealth services where treatment facilities may not otherwise be available. Importantly, the Proposed Bill’s Medical Assistance Act amendment applies to any managed care organization that contracts with Medicaid, or any provider who is reimbursed under the Medicaid program, and requires insurers to disclose whether they provide coverage for telehealth services for mental health as part of the price and value comparison requirement under Utah law.

The Proposed Bill was passed by both the Utah House of Representatives and Senate and was enrolled on February 24, 2017. The Proposed Bill now awaits Governor Gary Herbert’s signature. If approved, the Proposed Bill will greatly expand access to health care for the mentally ill in Utah, and additionally provide more guidance to assist in the expanded use of telehealth and telemedicine services within the state.

Texas telehealth requirements will significantly change in the near future if Texas Senate Bill 1107 is passed into law, as it removes the controversial “face-to-face” or in-person consultation requirement to establish a physician-patient relationship and lawfully provide telehealth and telemedicine services within the state. This bill comes after a six-year-long battle between telemedicine stakeholders and the Texas Medical Board, and will better align Texas’ regulations with those found in other states.

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